25 Things You Should Never Say About Another Person’s Appearance
There's a fine line between a compliment and an insult.
What’s the difference between a compliment and an insult? In many cases, it depends on who you’re talking to. Even people with the best intentions can occasionally find themselves delivering what they think is a compliment, only to discover that what they said was interpreted otherwise—especially when those compliments are about someone else’s looks. So, before you accidentally insult someone or make their day worse with a backhanded compliment, make sure you know these things you should never say about another person’s appearance.
“You look exhausted.”
What you should say instead: “How are you doing?”
Maybe your friend is exhausted, maybe they’re sick, and maybe they just need a vacation—in any case, this question gives them an opportunity to discuss it, but doesn’t pressure them to admit everything they’ve been losing sleep over.
“When are you due?”
Nobody wants to hear that they look pregnant when they’re not. And in some cases, people who “look pregnant” are dealing with other medical issues that they’re not eager to talk about, from fibroids to cancer. In other cases, that person you’re positive is pregnant may look that way because they’ve recently had a miscarriage or stillbirth, and the mention of pregnancy could easily spark a flood of emotions they’re not eager to open up about.
What you should say instead: “Anything new with you?”
If someone wants to discuss their pregnancy with you, this gives them an opening to do so, but doesn’t make them address the subject if they don’t want to.
“You look amazing for your age.”
This may seem like a great compliment, but the “for your age” tacked onto the end of it makes it sound far less genuine.
What you should say instead: “You look fantastic!”
If someone looks great—and it’s appropriate to say so, of course—tell them that without making it an age-specific compliment.
“Smile! It can’t be that bad.”
Telling someone to smile is kind of like telling someone to laugh—it’s not really how happiness works. Besides, asking people to look a certain way for your benefit isn’t going to make them happier, either. Sometimes, people are having bad days and their faces reflect that. It’s not your place to correct how they’re feeling.
What you should say instead: “Is everything okay?”
If someone looks upset, try asking them about it instead of simply telling them not to be sad.
“Real women have curves.”
While you might think this phrase would make your curvy friend feel better about their body, it sends the message that thinner women are somehow less attractive or desirable. And there’s no reason to tear someone down while complimenting someone else.
What you should say instead: “That looks great on you!”
Instead of making someone feel like you’re focusing on their body and its particular attributes (potentially making them or others uncomfortable in the process), give them a more general compliment that doesn’t put down someone else’s body along the way.
“You have such strong features!”
The implication here is that you’re not really giving someone a compliment, but rather pointing out what’s unusual about their looks. It’s the reason calling someone an “unconventional beauty” doesn’t have the same positive ring to it that calling someone “beautiful” typically does.
What you should say instead: “What a beautiful [insert feature] you have!”
If someone has a particularly striking feature, tell them that, rather than just using a blanket descriptor—especially one that might be perceived as negative.
”Don’t worry, you’ll bounce back.”
The idea that people need to “bounce back”—whether from having a baby, undergoing surgery, or any other appearance-altering event—can make them feel additional pressure when they’re already going through a tough time.
What you should say instead: “How are you feeling?”
If you’ve noticed that your friend has gained a few pounds or looks different in another way, you can bet that they’ve noticed it too. When people have gone through life-changing events, they need your support, not your judgment.
“You look great. Have you lost weight?”
Considering how frequently people hear that being thin should be their goal, asking if someone’s lost weight can make them feel like you think they look better carrying less weight.
What you should say instead: “You look great! What’s new with you?”
If the person you’re talking to is eager to share their diet and exercise habits, they will.
“You’d be so attractive if…”
Nine out of 10 times, people simply don’t want to hear what you think would make them more attractive, whether that’s more makeup, a new wardrobe, or dropping a few pounds. Think of a compliment that doesn’t encourage the recipient to change something about themselves.
What you should say instead: “I love your [insert feature here].”
Focus on the positive instead! And, as the saying goes, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
“Is your hair real?”
Hair can be a hot-button topic, especially for many people of color. They are frequently on the receiving end of two contradictory, often discriminatory messages: that their hair in its natural state isn’t acceptable in certain settings, and that their chosen protective or decorative alternative (like scarves or braids) isn’t, either.
What you should say instead: “I love your hair.”
If you think someone’s hair looks awesome, you can tell them that without asking them to discuss the intricacies of how they care for it.
“Eat a cheeseburger.”
Just because someone looks too thin to you doesn’t mean they’re necessarily unhealthy, and for people struggling with eating disorders or other health issues, a comment like this can trigger some serious self-consciousness.
What you should say instead: “Is everything okay?”
If you’re close enough to someone to express concern about their weight, or know something about their history that makes you think you should, let them start that conversation.
“You look too young to have kids.”
The idea that moms are perpetually trying to shed baby weight, are uniformly covered in spit-up, and are more likely to have a teether in their purse than a hairbrush, is more than a little insulting. Parenting doesn’t mean someone’s standards for their appearance fly out the window.
What you should say instead: “You look amazing!”
Just leave the kids out of it.
“Aren’t you afraid of what those tattoos will look like when you’re old?”
If someone has a few tattoos, odds are they already have considered how they’ll look when they’re older. And considering that everyone’s skin changes as they age, you’re not exactly onto something when you suggest that they won’t look the same 60-odd years in the future.
What you should say instead: “I love your tattoos.”
If you admire someone’s tattoos in the present, say so and don’t worry about the future. Plus, the only recourse for tattoo removal is a process that’s as painful as it is expensive. (Read: very.) And any person with ink is well aware of that fact.
“You don’t really look like you work out.”
Just because someone doesn’t have what you consider a “fit” body doesn’t mean they never exercise, and suggesting that is pretty much universally offensive.
What you should say instead: “What do you like to do at the gym?”
If the person you’re talking with has an exercise plan they love, this gives them an opportunity to tell you all about it.
“You’ll ruin your looks if…”
The idea of someone’s looks being “ruined” suggests conformity to a very narrow definition of beauty. Just because that buzz cut or nose ring doesn’t tickle your fancy doesn’t mean it’s “ruining” anything about the person sporting them.
What you should say instead: “That is such a cool style!”
In most cases, people aren’t courting your approval about their physical attractiveness. The person you’re talking to probably isn’t going to be dissuaded from their choice by a snarky comment, anyway—all you’ll do is make them feel bad.
“That doesn’t look very ladylike.”
Sure, wearing ripped fishnets or black lipstick might have scandalized folks a century ago, but basing someone’s value as a person on whether or not they look “ladylike” is antiquated and sexist.
What you should say instead: “I love how edgy your style is.”
Pushing the envelope is what fashion’s all about, isn’t it? Give your friend the confidence to keep making those bold style choices, even if it might leave others clutching their pearls.
“You don’t look like you’re [insert race here].”
Assuming that every race or ethnic group looks one way is reductive, at best, and may even come across as racist to the people you’re saying it to.
What you should say instead: Nothing.
Unless someone wants to open up about their heritage to you, discussions of another person’s race or ethnicity—especially when you’re indicating your feelings about how you think they should look—are best avoided.
“That outfit is very revealing.”
Certain physical features are frequently sexualized, but that doesn’t mean that simply having a particular body type means you’re looking for sexual attention.
What you should say instead: If you’re going somewhere a particular outfit wouldn’t be appropriate, let the person know in a tactful manner, like, “At this synagogue, we usually cover our elbows and knees.” Otherwise, keep your opinions to yourself.
“That’s not really flattering on you.”
The concept of “flattering” is pretty subjective—you might not think that wide-cut suit looks great on your friend, but if they do, who’s to say they’re wrong?
What you should say instead: “This looks great on you!”
Instead of making someone feel bad about something you don’t find attractive on them, only tell them when you think they look good—and of course, only when it’s appropriate to do so.
“You’re so brave to wear that.”
What you’re saying: “brave.” What people are hearing: “That doesn’t look good on you.”
What you should say instead: “I love that outfit!”
If you’re trying to compliment someone, don’t make it seem like wearing a certain article of clothing or makeup style is somehow going against social norms.
“You’ve got such an exotic look.”
“Exotic” is a term best used for pet fish or fowl, not people. When it comes to humans, the word can often seem like an offensive call-out of someone’s looks or heritage, indicating that you think the way they look is somehow non-standard.
What you should say instead: “I love your look.”
This provides the recipient of your compliment an opening to discuss their background, if they see fit. Or they may just tell you about the outfit they’re wearing, if that’s how they interpret what you’re saying instead.
“That color is kind of girly.”
Is there anything wrong with being girly? Of course not. But this phrase makes it pretty clear you think there’s something wrong with it.
What you should say instead: “That’s a new style for you!”
“Your skin looks so much better!”
If you noticed your friend’s acne, hyperpigmentation, or other skin issue, you can bet they did too—so steer clear of this backhanded compliment.
What you should say instead: “You’re glowing!”
Saying “better” makes it pretty clear that you thought there was a “worse” at some point.
“You don’t look like you’re LGBTQIA+.”
There’s no uniform look to members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and this phrase makes it seem like you’re already engaging in some ugly stereotyping.
What you should say instead: If someone brings up their experience as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community and you’re close with them, use your discretion about asking them questions. But even if you’re close, that shouldn’t include questions about their anatomy or bedroom habits.
“Nobody wants to see that.”
Just because dyed hair, piercings, tattoos, certain kinds of outfits, makeup styles, or body types aren’t your cup of tea, that doesn’t mean that nobody’s into them—all it means is that you aren’t.
What you should say instead: “You look incredible!”
It’s likely your own insecurities fueling that judgment of others, to some degree, so instead of tearing someone else down, build them up! You’ll be amazed at how much better you feel applauding someone for their choices instead of denigrating them for those decisions. And if you want to improve your self-esteem, start with these 40 Ways to Boost Your Confidence After 40.
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